In this third and final installment (part 1 and part 2) of our mid-season NBA reports, today we take a look at the most important development that will take place from here to the end of the season: the final playoff spots. According to John Hollinger's projections, 13 teams stand at the break with at least 95% chance of making the postseason. That may seem absurdly high, but considering the gaps between the haves and the have-nots atop the standings, it makes sense that most playoff teams are only battling for positioning.
The East has a 6-team logjam of squads that are within two games of each other fighting for two spots, while the West only has the 8th seed for the taking with three teams within a game and a half. In this exercise we analyze each team's chances and make a prediction using the most important factors going forward in the NBA season.
In: #7 Charlotte Hornets, #8 Miami Heat
Out: #9 Brooklyn Nets, #10 Boston Celtics, #11 Detroit Pistons, #12 Indiana Pacers
There is no way to sugarcoat it: these teams are basically battling for the right to be slaughtered in Round 1 by the likes of Atlanta, Toronto, Cleveland or whoever ends up occupying the top two seeds in the East. Still, playoff appearances carry a certain gravitas to them, and you never know when a massive upset can occur.
The current 7-spot, Charlotte, started the season hoping to be the next Toronto or Washington – an upstart team that would leapfrog into the East's best. However, the Lance Stephenson signing has been mostly a disaster, and the team's young core hasn't developed as Michael Jordan & Co. expected. Charlotte's 34.3% playoff odds leave them out of the picture, but still very close to returning to the postseason.
The LeBron-less Heat have taken a predictable step back, even after starting the season playing well. Miami has only won consecutive games twice since December, and entered the break by losing four of their last five games. However, they currently stand as the projected best finish among these quasi-contenders, with a 42.4% of securing a spot. Miami's weak schedule going forward is the biggest factor contributing here, as well as having a healthy Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh leading the team.
With the league's second-largest payroll, the Nets have been the biggest disappointment of the year, but they still have a chance to find small redemption. Kevin Garnett continues to show his age, while Joe Johnson and Deron Williams feature two of the worst contracts in the NBA, as the Nets have a team that would have looked perfect in 2010 but is mediocre-at-best in 2015. Brooklyn's tough slate and the injury concerns of the team place them as the lowest-ranked of the bunch, with a mere 21.4% chance of the playoffs. At this point, and with sale talks surrounding the franchise, it seems that a lottery pick is a better outcome than a sad playoff appearance.
In season 2 of the Brad Stevens experiment, the Celtics were supposed to have yet another year of mild tanking on their way to a full-blown rebuild. Instead, they have taken advantage of the weak East to find themselves in an awkward position: fight for the playoffs or go for the high draft pick. Their current 38.5% odds have them barely in at the 8th spot, as the Celtics have a middling schedule and have a decent point differential. Still, if there is a team that clearly doesn't want to be here as an organization is Boston. With their fanbase accepting this transition as a means to return to contention, but with a coach that is highly competitive and a roster that continues to play above its talent level, the end of the season will be very interesting in the Garden.
After hiring Stan Van Gundy to coach the team, the Pistons set their sights on a quick turnaround to mitigate the pain of 5 straight seasons without playoffs, the franchise's longest stretch since the late 70's. The problem was that the starting five never coalesced, and Detroit was on the verge of a disastrous campaign. The Pistons were 5-23 in late December, when reported team cancer Josh Smith was released, and since then the tides have turned to the tune of a 16-10 mark. That puts Detroit 2 games back of the 8-spot, but with only 25.8% odds of actually getting in. The team has shown that it can string together a long winning streak, which will be a necessary trait if they want to reverse course.
After making the Conference Finals in straight years, the Pacers entered the season with the crushing news that their star, Paul George, would be lost for the year. Much like the Heat, the absence of the team's best player has greatly diminished Indiana, a squad that has looked uneven at best. However, recent reports indicate that George can return by mid-March, which would serve as the greatest in-season acquisition in the league. With 37.3% odds, the Pacers now stand as a very close #9, but that probably undersells the return of George.
The Suns entered the break with only a half-game lead at the 8-spot, caused by a 3-7 slide just before the season's midway point. To make matters worse, recent reports have suggested that the team's locker room has been struggling lately, including the possibility of point guard Goran Dragic actively seeking out a trade. The recent troubles in Phoenix now see them with a lackluster 20.6% chance of earning a playoff berth. Even as it is a shame that the West will leave two entertaining teams out, while the East will have two playoff teams with losing records, the Suns will need to get their stuff together if they want to avoid being relegated to the ninth spot like it happened in 2014.
With MVP-like production from Russell Westbrook and a quick return to form from Kevin Durant, the Thunder have weathered the storm (no pun intended) after beginning the season without their two stars and now appear primed to become the most difficult 8-seed in recent memory. 10 wins in their past 16 games have helped OKC recoup ground and be within striking distance of the 8-spot, and with an outside chance of even climbing higher. However it ends up, the Thunder's 70.4% odds look great on paper as they are finally playing like one of the best teams in the league.
The Pelicans have arguably one of the 3 best players in the league in Anthony Davis, but poor coaching and a weak supporting cast have dragged down the team as they stand on the fringes of contention. Only 1.5 games back of Phoenix, New Orleans enters the stretch with playoff odds of 15.2% percent, needing a miraculous run of their own and stumbles from both the Suns and Thunder. Missing the postseason would be a bitter result for the Pelicans, as they are slated to forfeit their 2015 lottery pick to Houston.
In the East, it somehow seems more enticing to have a lottery pick than to have a quick one-and-done postseason appearance, so the motivation should be on the side of teams that actually started the season with playoff hopes. In that vein, I'm picking the Heat to keep the status quo and finish in the seventh spot, and Detroit to barely upstage Indiana and Brooklyn for the #8 spot. These two teams have the advantages of superior coaches, which should be a nice advantage down the stretch.
Things should become a bit clearer in the West, where Oklahoma's talent level will just be too much to overcome. Phoenix is better suited to retool and be a serious contender in 2016, while the Pelicans need to have a good offseason in order to give the Brow better teammates. On the other hand, OKC is built to win now, and they should snag the #8 spot comfortably and then pose a serious threat to whoever steps in their way during the postseason.